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Prison Labor: Some Facts and Issues 

by Karen Miller 

Prison labor: the words conjure images of chain gangs, laundry and license plates. The 

reality behind the words is the growing reliance of many industries on the cheap, plentiful 

labor force provided by America's prison system. 

America is not in short supply of this 'resource': the total incarcerated has reached about 2 
million in the year 2000: "get tough on crime" laws, "three strikes." and increasing arrests 
for non- violent drug- related offenses have pushed the incarceration rate to more than 600 
in 100,000 in 1999 (O'Meara 14). 

Given the climate of the country, it's not likely we'll see a great reduction in prisons soon. 
But while exploitation of labor in a profit-oriented society such as ours is perhaps 
inevitable, the outcome of promoting that exploitation is grim. The danger is for both the 
prisoner and the non-prisoner. It is both moral and economic. 

Looking at the history of prison labor, it becomes quickly evident that history is 
beginning to repeat itself. In the 1800s. prisons recouped* their expenses by leasing 
convicts to private companies: in 1885, fully three-quarters of prisoners were involved in 
some form of labor, mostly for private companies or individuals (du Pont, "Some 
Benefits of Prisoner Labor"). This had little to do with attempts at rehabilitation. 
Prisoners were forced to work without pay. often in dangerous conditions; convict miners 
were killed in cave-ins in the 1 800s (Leonhardt Al). In 1 887, Congress for the first time 
attempted to outlaw the leasing of convict labor to private parties (Ingley 28+), but there 
was backlash at the state level: refusal to house federal prisoners. 

Increasing pressure came from reformers and unionists as the nineteenth century closed. 
Prefiguring the attempts at prison reform in the Sixties and Seventies, Zebulon 
Brockaway established the Elmira State Reformatory in New York in 1876, which offered 
the "first prison programs in education, athletics and job training and... the first 
experiments with parole" (Ingley 28+). An attempt to use prison labor during a strike at 
the Tennessee Coal Company in 1 891 {Lafer 66+) ended with a surprising show of 
solidarity; mine workers "stormed the prisons, released the convicts, and burned the 
prison to the ground." Certainly the miners were most interested in protecting their own 
jobs and rights, but the fact that they thought of the prisoners at all is significant. 

What finally drove legislation restricting prison labor was the Depression and the 
increasing fear that private jobs would be lost to cheaper convict labor. The 1935 Hawes- 
Cooper Act, along with the Ashurst- Sumner Act of 1940. outlawed interstate trade in 
convict-made goods, making it a felony and a federal crime to traffic in them (O'Meara 
14; du Pont, "Some Benefits of Prisoner Labor"). Subsection (b) of the Ashurst-Sumner 
Act does exempt goods made in State prisons for use by any prison in any other state, or 
federal prison-made goods for use by any other federal prison (Ingley 28+). Congress 
banned prison labor use on federal contracts exceeding $10,000 the same year (du Pont, 
"Some Benefits"); the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act placed limits on the purchase 

of prison-made goods by the federal government (Ingley 28+), 

However, by 1979 the climate had changed. That year, the Justice System Improvement 
Act was introduced; this repealed the limitations imposed by the 1935 Hawes-Cooper Act 
and the 1940 Ashurst-Sumner Act on interstate trade in prison goods. The Justice System 
Improvement Act established seven Prison Industry Enhancement programs (PIEs), 
which allow lor businesses to contract prison labor for their projects, and to engage them 
in interstate commerce (O'Meara 14). This act also amended the Ashurst-Sumner Act 
exempting goods "made in a designated pilot project" (Ingley 28+) — effectively taking 
the teeth out of the earlier legislation. 

As it stands now, the Nineties have seen an increasing trend toward privatization of 
prisons themselves and the attendant increase in private companies availing themselves of 
prison labor. Arizona has re-instated the chain gang; Oregon's state Constitution was 
amended in 1994 to require that all prisoners work a 40-hour week or be "in training" 
(Perlman 42). as well as requiring the state to actively market prison labor (Lafer 66+). 

But the road to corporatization of the penal system is not all smooth. In 1997. conflict 
between state and federal laws on inmate pay for private industry work prevented Oregon 
from shipping its "Prison Blues" jeanswear across state lines (Perlman 42). Massachusetts 
state law (1998) prohibits employment of inmates by private companies; the law states 
that "no prisoner shall be employed outside the precincts of his place of imprisonment 
doing work of any kind for private persons" (Vasuez Bl). Georgia in 1999 ruled that it is 
illegal to replace paid employees with free prison labor ("Don't Fill Paid Jobs" 14A) as 
well as using prison labor in private, for-profit facilities. New York state law permits 
"state-use" only in regard to prison products ~ sale of goods is permitted to government 
agencies only (du Pont, "Some Benefits"). Legislation is pending regarding opening of 
prisons to all private companies, and one bill is pending that would require state-run 
prison operations to compete with private companies, and allow them to hire federal 
inmates (leonhardt Al ). The year of 1995 saw a spate of bills designed to make it easier 
for private enterprises to make use of prison labor: the "No Frills Prison Act" (HR663) 
which would require all able prisoners to work a nine-hour day or face solitary 
confinement: a proposed amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act which would 
exempt certain programs from paying inmates the federal minimum wage (HR868): and a 
bill that would require inmates to work a minimum of 48 hours a week (S930), among 
others (Ingley 28+). As of this writing, these bills are still in committee. 

And in a nod to Edwin Meese Ill's vision of "factories with fences," former inmate and 
entrepreneur Bill Robinson, in an article in The Financial Times, announced that he had 
received financial backing for his proposed $22 million prison project in Texas, "devoted 
entirely to employing volunteer inmates in private enterprise" (16). The prison, which he 
hopes will be a model for others, is projected to open this autumn. Volunteers or not, it is 
clear that use of prison manpower is the wave of the future. 

So, one wonders, what does the employment of inmates offer private companies? What 
does it ofTer society? And not least, what does it offer the inmates who are employed? 

The usual justification for employing prisoners is rehabilitation. Where "breaking rocks" 

can be considered a form of out and out punishment, the claim of rehabilitative labor 
must show two things: that the skills and experience gained be useful for employment on 
the outside; and that documented rates of recidivism drop and that they be directly related 
to inside employment. No one can deny that the prospect of gainful employment can be a 
powerful incentive for staying out of jail; some convicts have even written letters and 
articles on the subject. A prisoner working as a printer says that his experience gained 
him not only skill, but pride in his skill and in his value of himself as a worker (Bratt CI). 
Other articles have described convicts lovingly restoring antique cars and making stained 
glass for the New York, New York Casino in Las Vegas (Perlman 42), certainly more 
glamorous and skillful employment than stamping license plates or doing garment 
piecework. But it should be noted these are exceptions rather than the rule. A garment 
sewer in prison has little to look forward to in the garment industry outside the walls, 
besides low wages and exploitation; never mind that most garment shops are located 
overseas. Reese Erlich asks in "Workin* For the Man" if the circuit board assembler in a 
Texas prison is really going to be a competitor for the immigrant women who do those 
jobs on the outside (63). 

The rehabilitation argument sounds good, but in practice. Gordon Later notes, "even a 
cursory examination of how prison industries are administered makes clear that the 
motivation... has little to do with rehabilitation" ("Captive Labor" 66+). CORCAN, the 
trade name for Correctional Services Canada, claims "we're running [it] as a business 
deliberately to give them a chance to practice what it's going to be like when they get 
out" ("Profiting from Prison Labor" 54); CORCAN claims a 25% drop in recidivism for 
those who have taken part in one of their training programs. Lest it be thought that 
CORCAN is doing this purely out of a sense of social responsibility, it should be noted 
that they reported revenues of $60 million in 1998. 

Studies like the 1983-87 Federal Post-Release Employment Project suggest that 
"employed prisoners do better than others without jobs" (du Pont, "Some Benefits"). Both 
Ohio and Florida claim 50% drops in recidivism for those who held "high skill" jobs 
while in prison — what these are is not detailed - with some unspecified drops for so- 
called "meaningful jobs" (Perlman 42). Despite the admission that most inmates will not 
be able to have the same jobs on the outside (Erlich 63), administrators of prison work 
programs consistently claim that this "job training" is connected to recidivism rates. In 
addition, employers tend to look for convicts who already possess the skills necessary for 
certain jobs (Later 66+) as well as lifers and long-timers, in order to minimize training 
and turnover (Wright 30) ~ the very people who arc usually considered to past 

Another reported benefit of prison labor is its utility in helping wardens manage the 
prison population. Tony Ellis, director of Prison Industries at the South Carolina 
Department of Corrections, claims that "work is the best management tool wardens ever 
see"; not only do prisoners "put in a productive day" but "we know where they are" 
(Perlman 42). This is a more easily demonstrated benefit than the claim of rehabilitation 
and job training. The enervating boredom of being locked up is somewhat relieved by 
having a job to go to and some pocket money, and a tired convict is a less aggressive 
convict. Boredom is a powerful motivator in prison. 

Sometimes it is claimed that having prisoners work will help defray the cost of 
imprisonment to taxpayers. Unfortunately there is no evidence to bear this out, though it 
makes a good "sound bite." Tighter sentencing and the high cost of building prisons 
makes prison labor inevitable, and "in a climate of fiscal restraint it is nearly impossible 
to raise taxes to cover the full cost of prison expansion" (Lafer 66+). Where this argument 
fails is in the economic realities of prison contracting. Though prisoners are supposed to 
be paid the prevailing wage, according to PIE legislation, this usually translates to 
minimum wage, with the state being entitled to withhold about 80%. The savings in 
wages don't get passed on to the taxpayer. The state (i.e., the taxpayers) pay for 
construction that companies need, reducing income from property taxes the businesses 
would otherwise have to pay, and higher paying jobs may be lost in the community to 
prison contracts, with loss of tax revenue (Wright 30). With the cost of maintaining each 
inmate, in order for the state to break even, each inmate would have to gross at least 
$160,000 a year (31). 

Where the real benefits of prison labor are most apparent are in the bankbooks of the 
companies that make use of it. As mentioned above, the PIE programs that resulted from 
the Justice System Improvement Act requires that prisoners be paid the "prevailing 
wage." In most cases this means the federal minimum wage; in some cases it is slightly 
better. This however does not apply to goods which are exported or which are to be used 
in intrastate commerce. Besides the low wage, the business is exempt from having to pay 
unemployment insurance, worker's compensation, or health insurance (O'Meara 14), or 
"anything that you might otherwise have to pay for in the free world" (Liu 1 6). One may 
hire, fire or reassign at will, for any reason (Lafer 66+). The availability of the prison 
worker delights Omega Pacific owner Bert Atwater: "the workers are delighted with the 
pay... don't come in late because of rush-hour traffic or sick children... [and] don't take 
vacations" (Wright 30). There is no threat of unionization, since prisoners are not 
permitted to organize. 

The company saves on rent, receiving free space for manufacturing as well as free 
electricity and water (O'Meara 14). In Canada, even minimum wage legislation is 

nonexistent ("Profiting" 54). In Oregon, you can lease a ten convict work crew for only 
$30 a day (Lafer 66+). 

Lowered overhead equals increased profits: Kwalu, Inc., a company which employs 
prisoners making plastic seating, expects to make $80 million in the next five years (Liu 
1 6); Lockhart Technologies went from paying non-prisoners $10 an hour to paying 
prisoners minimum wage plus only $1 a year in rent (Wright 30), effectively cutting its 
costs by half. In 1994, prison industries sales reached $1.31 billion (Erlich 60). Oregon 
State Representative Kevin Mannix encouraged Nike to relocate from its Indonesia 
factories back to Oregon prisons, saying, "we can offer competitive prison labor [here]" 

Morgan Reynolds, an economics professor at Texas A&M and a fellow in the National 
Center for Policy Analysis, claims that open competition for prison labor would raise 
prison wages, making them comparable to non-prison wages (Bratt CI). This seems to be 
an incredibly naive statement, given that the private companies that are making use of 
prison labor aren't doing it for humanitarian reasons, but to cut costs. More expensive 

prison labor would be less appealing to the bottom line. In addition, it isn't at all assured 
that competition would drive wages in this context. Prisons have the advantage of a 
bored, restless, and utterly captive workforce. 

That captive labor force is an advantage for those companies, like Hawaiian Tropical 
Products, that used to have to import low- pay workers from Micronesia and Mexico to 
pick and package fruit (Perlman 42). It also has the attraction of being suited for seasonal 
and short-demand work, since the prison can assemble any size work force on very short 
notice to meet demand (42). Repetitive, unattractive jobs can be easily filled; as one 
employer says, it's difficult "to get someone to sit for seven or eight hours a day and 
polish a bolt until it shines" (42) on the outside. On the inside, those who don't rush to fill 
the jobs ~ and they do rush — can be coerced. 

An added bonus for companies is the opportunity to tack "Made in USA" labels on the 
goods that are prison manufactured. The resulting image boost is not a negligible factor in 
marketing. As the vice president of Kwalu, Inc. points out. "we're employing Americans, 
they just happen to be incarcerated" (42). Significantly, it is the image, not the reality 
behind the image, which is important. 

Behind the pros for the companies, there are some very big cons for the convicts. 
Substandard or sweatshop conditions are commonly reported. Prisoners are made to work 
overlong days, and put in overtime without compensation (Liu 16); some former inmate 
workers for CMT, a garment company, were able to file a lawsuit claiming that their 60- 
day training was unpaid, that they were given unrealistic quotas, and were instructed to 
replace Honduran tags in garments with "Made in USA" labels (16). What would be 
minor issues in a non-prison workplace are punished extravagantly: pay is docked for 
"cussing" and telephone privileges are taken away. Pharmaceutical companies Parke- 
Davis and Upjohn were open about having "exploited the skills" of inmates by making 
them work 1 6-hour days (Sawyer 213). 

Lest anyone think this is the kind of situation that would be improved by widespread 
privatization of prisons, the rebellion at a privately-run INS facility in 1 994 provides an 
example of what happens when corporate interests are given free reign. Esmor. a "private 
corrections company." was exposed by federal investigation to have substandard 
conditions after the detainees at their New Jersey facility rebelled, having complained 
about "inedible food, dirty clothes and insects in the beds" (Erlich 59). The investigation 
turned up evidence that food, repairs and guard salaries had been cut down specifically in 
order to make a profit. The number of privately-run prisons has doubled since 1994, 
despite being investigated by state and federal authorities for civil rights violations, denial 
of medical treatment, and poor food and living conditions (Harr 29). 

Pay is another factor. As mentioned, PIE requires that a "prevailing wage" be paid. 
However, the Department of Corrections can deduct whatever they see fit, for "cost of 
incarceration, mandatory savings, victims' compensation. Social Security and Medicare" 
(O'Meara 14). If a prisoner is paid minimum wage, about 10% of that is actually pocketed 
(Liu 16). Despite PIE, actual wages range from about .25 to $7 an hour (Leonhardt Al). 
Prison Blues workers in Oregon get .28 to $8 an hour, but 80% of the higher wage is 
withheld, yielding a "take-home" pay of $1.60 (Erlich 60). Mandatory training is paid at a 

lower rate or not at all. Kwalu, Inc. demands 160 hours of training, at .50 an hour (Liu 

Inmates have no union protections and no bargaining power. They have no right to 
organize or strike, no means of filing a grievance or complaint, no right to circulate an 
employee petition or newsletter, and no right to call meetings (Later 66+). Occasionally a 
lawsuit gets filed, as in the case of two California prisoners who claimed they were put in 
solitary for complaining about substandard working conditions (Leonhardt Al). Charles 
Ervin and Shearwood Fleming talked to a local television show about their suit, then 
claimed that they were "fired, put in solitary confinement for more than 45 days and... 
transferred to another prison" (Al). Airing a grievance in the public media, if one can, 
seems to be the only effective means; lawsuits take time and money, and while prisoners 
may be swimming in the former, they don't have much of the latter. 

In this context, worker exploitation takes on a whole new meaning. It has been noted that 
prisoners want to work; at the same time, refusal to work can put you in "disciplinary 
housing," loss of canteen privileges, loss of "good time credit" necessary for sentence 
reduction (Erlich 58). The stakes are higher than on the outside. One is working for 
freedom. Paul Wright refers to it as real "wage slavery" (28); he quotes an inmate who 
points out that an industry job "consumes virtually all of your out-of-cell time... this 
limits your ability to visit with your family and attorneys, do legal research, go to 
school..." (29). Another inmate asserts that it's not like slavery "because that implies it is 
compelled... it's more like serfdom, [or] a domesticated animal" (29) which some might 
argue is only marginally better. 

There are definite downsides for the public as well. Weakening of labor protections is 
one. As noted, there is a history of using prison labor as scab labor. Then too, there will 
of necessity be a lowered standard for the "free" workers whose employers now have to 
compete with cheap, domestic prison labor. One need look no further than Los Angeles 
for a recent example of the utility of prison labor in circumventing unions (Riccardi B8). 
Los Angeles jail workers in the process of a union drive were fired, replaced with inmate 
workers, then a week later, more private sector workers were hired to replace the inmates. 
Employers were thus able to legally lay off 207 workers making $6 an hour, replace them 
with free labor, then go back to private workers at a reduced wage. Jim Rodriguez of the 
United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 claims that this "sent a message to... 
new employees." 

A more immediate effect of prison labor is the displacement of free labor. PIE requires 
that investigation into the displacing effects of prison labor on the local economy be 
made, and that the interests of local businesses be protected (O'Meara 1 4). In practice this 
is glossed over or ignored. Since the Oregon mandate, many public sector jobs have been 
filled with convicts, many private sector companies have laid off workers; 100 union 
construction workers have been replaced by Umatilla inmates, and union laundry workers 
have been displaced by prison laundry contracts (Lafer 66+). Ohio prisoners working for 
Honda were paid $2 hour, displacing United Auto Workers who had fought for decades to 
achieve $20 or $30 an hour (66+). In 1999, Crisp County Solid Waste Management 
Authority (Atlanta) replaced 50 workers (including 35 former welfare recipients) with 
unpaid prison labor, which in Georgia is illegal ("Don't Fill Paid Jobs" 14A); Chip Wells, 

board chairman of the Authority, believed that the Authority paid inmates directly in 
order to gel around the Georgia prohibition of privately employing prisoners (the 
company doing the recycling was a private firm. Environmental Technologies Group) 
(Cook 1 A). Gordon Lafer notes that this case "shows how easy it can be to flout 
restrictions on the use of prison labor" (66+). Lafer, a professor of political science at the 
University of Oregon, calls the worry over displacement "a decent sized problem that is 
poised to explode." Among the concerned are the AFL-CIO (Perlman 42), the Teamsters, 
and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which includes 
corrections officers (66+). Oregon voters are considering whether to repeal the mandate. 

Oregon isn't the only state with labor displacement problems. In Texas, Wackenhut, a 
prison operations company, flouted the PIE directive on consulting with local labor 
(Erlich 62). As a result, 150 electronics jobs in Austin paying $10 an hour were lost to 
prison labor. And in regard to concerns over a company called New Products' switch to 
prison labor, Pete du Pont of the San Diego Union Tribune wrote, "the government's first 
responsibility is to citizens, not narrow interest groups. New Products benefits all 
Americans." Narrow interest groups like Americans struggling to hold onto jobs in the 
current market, or those interested in preserving labor protections will be surprised to 
leam that, apparently, "citizens" means "corporations." 

Use of prison labor, according to the Trade Union Federation of New Zealand, diminishes 
possible job growth in the larger economy. According to their 1997 report, "use of 
inmates during the set-up stage of a new business minimizes the risks of failure" but 
ultimately excludes outside workers from jobs, while "it increases profit margins" it 
"lessens the likelihood of real job growth" (Norgate 6). There are safety issues for the 
public, especially in cases where work gangs are not competently supervised, or where 
private information about citizens is gathered (in the case of marketing research, 
telemarketing, and credit card reservations for airlines or hotels). Lower quality goods 
and services are more likely in this "McPrison" atmosphere (O'Meara 14). 

There is another, nastier conclusion lurking behind the drive for cheap goods and 
services. If prison labor is a profitable resource, then it follows that one must ensure a 
steady and plentiful supply of labor - or as some executives call the convicts, "raw 
materials" (Hair 30). Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Wackenhut, as 
prison operations companies, are paid on a "per prisoner, per day" basis; they can expect 
to gross "$12.78 million every year for the duration of their contract unless the prison 
population decreases" (O'Meara 14). CCA reported a net income of $484.5 million in the 
first nine months of 1 998 (Harr 29). Since inmates equal job security, these companies 
have "strong motivations" for keeping up incarcerations (31). Growth of prison 
population and the costs of imprisonment "suggest there will be strong pressures to put 
more prisoners to work" (Lafer 66+). Stock returns are another reason those in a position 
of power may have incentive to pass tougher laws on imprisonment; the wife of Lamar 
Alexander, former governor of Tennessee, received over $130,000 in returns on CCA 
stock (Harr 31). The present governor received campaign donations from CCA (3 1 ). 

The fear that profit-based prisons will undermine the civil rights of the prisoners and 
institute literal "wage slavery" is not unfounded, given the history and the present reality 
of prison operations. Roger Sawyer, in his book Slavery in the Twentieth Century, notes 

"in the rapidly expanding private sector... there is a built-in conflict between the prison 
manager's wish to achieve profitability and his power to dispense the 'good-time credits' 
which affect prisoners' chances of earning parole" (214). 

A full survey of the ethical problems inherent in prison labor would take another paper, 
but I can outline some questionable points here. 

Is the drive to use prisons as profit-producing institutions undermining justice? America 

has had an uneasy time with crime and the tension between punishment and 
rehabilitation. The current revival of chain gangs and the drive for mandatory prison labor 
arc examples of the newly punitive spirit, despite the US Justice Department statistics 
that point to a widespread drop in crime. "Rehabilitation" is a word largely used in the 
names of prisons; rehabilitation of criminals, true rehabilitation, would necessitate a 
rehabilitation of society's current values. 

There are those who see the trend of privatization of prison ownership, management, and 
labor as an example of capitalism going too far. Don Murray of the National Association 
of Counties asks, "is it appropriate to delegate deadly force to a private company... would 
we turn over the Army to a private company because they can run it cheaper" (O'Meara 
14)? There is discomfort with the notion of a corporation taking over certain functions of 
government. Is it really ethical for a business organization to have the power of life and 
death over private citizens? The ex-director of the National Sheriffs' Association, Buddy 
Moser, voices his own discomfort: believing that choices should center on the "well- 
being of the community." he asks "how can you make money off of something like 
incarcerating people" (14)? 

The specter of slavery rears its head. But there remains the idea that while the image of 
slavery is despicable, the substance of it is acceptable as long as it's done for the "good" 
of someone: the prisoner, the market, the country. If anything, the current flap over 
"Chinese slave labor" has taught the US that it's okay, as long as we don't have to see or 
experience it ourselves ~ that the arbiter of right and wrong in the marketplace is the 
bottom line. A consultant for the Bureau of Justice remarks that some companies are shy 
of hiring prison labor in America, because "they don't want to be smeared with this image 
[italics mine] that they're hiring Chinese slave labor or something close to that" (Liu 16). I 
think the choice of words is particularly telling. 

But is it comparable to slavery? One inmate quoted above thinks so; another calls it 
closer to "serfdom" in that slaves are "compelled." A serf or a prison can be compelled in 
a different way ~ starvation or loss of "good time," solitary confinement meant to beat the 
spirit or effectively being cut off from emotional and legal support. All three, of course, 
can be punished physically. Inmate Daniel Ilarr argues that "the private prison ventures 
are solely designed to profit from the transfer, housing, and utilization of human beings, 
the very essence of slavery..." (30). As far back as 1972, the National Council of Crime 
and Delinquency declared that prison industries "have exploited the prisoner as a slave 
worker of the state..." (Sawyer 21 1 ). Certainly in most cases the prisoner has committed a 
crime, but once inside, they become "temporary slaves in all but name" (21 1). A mandate 
derived from the Thirteenth Amendment permits "slavery or involuntary servitude" only 
as a punishment of criminals (210). Article Four of the UN Declaration of Human Rights 

(1948) declares "no one shall be held in slavery or servitude: slaver}' and the slave trade 
shall be prohibited in all their forms" (Harr 31). Certainly the dehumanizing aspect of 
treating humans (convicted criminals or not) as "raw materials" for increasing profit is the 
first step to slavery. 

What interests me most is what this all says about our ideas of what work is, what it 
should be, and how we relate to it. To ask someone their ideas about prison labor serves 
as a test of their ideas about labor in general. In my opinion, the world of prison labor is a 
rawer microcosm of the world of free labor. Edwin Meese's "factories with fences" 
sounds even more disturbing when you realize that all factories have fences. Alienation is 
alienation, and exploitation is exploitation; whether one is exploited on the inside of the 
fence or the outside is a matter of degree, not kind. It doesn't help that the anger of free 
workers and inmate workers is misdirected: union members are not inclined to think of 
prisoners as comrades in arms in the fight for fairness in the workplace, but as stealers of 
jobs, when their anger should be for the company that stole their livelihood; and the 
inmates, preoccupied with the narrow scope of their daily lives and glad for the income, 
are not disposed to care whether they are helping to drive down the market price oflabor. 
As one inmate puts it, "Fuck society, they locked me up" (Wright 29). 

Pull one thread, and you begin unravelling the whole fabric of our society: unsavory 
preoccupation with crime and increasing demand for punishment, but ignorance of the 
root causes of crime and the goals of punishment; satisfaction with image over substance, 
sound bites over complexity; lip service to American ideals and simultaneous repudiation 
of the realities of democracy. The economic reality is that we are working harder and 
harder for less and less, and the psychological reality is that we are accepting this, 
because we can still see the grass when we look through the bars on our windows. 

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